The interdependence and fragility of modern life could not have been made clearer than by the Kobe earthquake on Jan. 17, which took more than 5,000 lives and left more than 300,000 people homeless. It is also disrupting Japanese industry and world commerce in ways that cannot yet be measured.
Even now, as Japanese vent anger on Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's shaky coalition government for allegedly inadequate emergency response, the message is sinking in that there can be stronger earthquakes than this one at 7.2 on the Richter scale, and in more developed and populous and vulnerable areas than Kobe, both in Japan and in California among other places.
The severe damage to Kobe Steel and Kawasaki Steel threatens production in many Japanese industries, made all the more vulnerable by Japan's fabled low inventory system that depends on absolutely reliable supply.
Even American production in auto and other industries is jeopardized by the internationalization of parts and the crippling of Kobe port, Japan's largest in volume, which normally handles 52,000 containers a week. Shipments can be rerouted to Osaka and other ports or even air freight, but the costs and delays mount.
While the earthquake leaves trauma in many lives as aftershocks reverberate, and does present immeasurable economic damage near and far, it is also an economic stimulus. Especially in a country like Japan, blessed with surplus capital and boundless skills. Japan will rebuild. The latest reconstruction cost estimates by local government officials exceed $60 billion. That is jobs made, where others are lost. Not every country hit by such catastrophe could reinvest immediately as Japan will do.
For the shattered people of Kobe, of course, all that comes later. Hundreds of thousands still need restoration of electric power, natural gas, water and food distribution. Lives still need to be saved, before they can be restored to the level of comfort and security and productive use to which the people of Kobe, Japanese and foreigners alike, are accustomed.